With a wealth of experience, Mark focuses on amplifying the crucial link between utility companies and their customers, bringing a unique blend of strategic vision and practical insights to the forefront of the industry, all of which is what fed into Mark being featured in the Energy Central Network of Experts for the past few years. In this exclusive interview (following previous Expert Interviews where you can see more of Mark’s perspectives in 2021 and 2022), we check back in with Mark as he shares his perspectives on the evolving marketplace dynamics, the challenges faced by customer service departments, and the role of emerging technologies like AI in shaping the future of utilities.
Matt Chester: Reflecting on the trends observed in 2023, how do you anticipate the marketplace dynamics evolving in 2024, especially in response to the perceived lack of innovation in legacy applications and utilities seeking more value from their digital investments?
Mark Wilkinson: Thanks, Matt. One of our most popular articles right out of the gate in 2024 this year was about utility marketplaces. After a bit of a lull, we saw a lot of activity throughout 2023 from utilities in the form of RFIs and a few projects launched for new marketplaces. It’s pretty clear utilities want to see more innovation in these platforms.
Based on conversations we had with utilities and the RFPs I read, utilities expect their marketplaces to offer a much broader set of services AND create some positive revenue. It’s almost impossible for a marketplace solely for energy efficiency devices and rebate fulfillment to make money because of its narrow focus, but a marketplace that offers a variety of products and services so that nearly all customers can find something of value should at least create some supplemental revenue for the utility.
It’s been my position for a long time that a key success metric of a utility marketplace should include sales. Good sales on a marketplace shows that the team has accurately judged the interest of the customers, offered products and services to match customer interests and needs, found creative ways to attract and engage those customers, and delivered offers compelling enough for customers to buy. That’s a great way to measure customer affinity. And marketplaces can be terrific environments for utilities to innovate around the customer experience Beyond the Meter to stay close to customer interests. It’s really a wonderful match.
MC: Challenges continue to arise for customer service departments in utilities in the past year. In the current environment where budgets are constrained, regulations are evolving, and digital contact is increasingly favored by customers, how do you propose maintaining the significance of the first customer experience, especially in relation to Beyond the Meter programs?
MW: Great question. Most utilities call that experience energy start/stop or new energy start, but most companies would refer to it as a new customer experience. Online or in the call center, it’s the first opportunity to set up the customer relationship with the company and show them all of the value-add benefits just from being a customer of the utility. We recommend thinking about that critical experience like a customer onboarding and working through a checklist of all the steps to set up the customer for a lifetime of success with the utility.
There’s no better opportunity to offer help with a move, introduce service plans, refer to energy efficiency programs and rebates, find out if the customer has an electric vehicle or needs charging options in the new home, wants paperless billing, and give them a choice of newsletters to send to their email inbox. The onboarding experience for a new customer shows the customer that their utility has anticipated their needs and has a range of programs, services, and special offers to help.
Today, about 25% of customers start their service online without calling customer service, and most utilities have an efficient process for a digital service start. Very few have a digital onboarding, though. And not having some form of onboarding usually means that the next experience customers have with their utility could be after a high bill or an outage, and recovering from a bad experience costs a lot more than delivering a great first experience.
Utilities need partners to help with the first customer experience who can incorporate the utility Beyond the Meter programs in a new CX and also provide a full digital experience. The legacy mover services vendors haven’t really innovated in these areas or have resisted adding utility Beyond the Meter programs along with mover services. We think that’s really short sighted. Setting customers up with a New Connection program, a genuine first customer experience, provides a real onboarding for the utility customer lifecycle whether that’s on the phone or online for the digital first customers.
MC: In the context of a digital-centric era, how do you propose utilities maintain a customer-centric approach in their strategies, especially considering the increasing preference for digital contact, and what role does the first customer experience play in this scenario?
MW: I think the number that gets discussed most often is about 25% of energy start/stop gets completed online, today. That’s a net number. Of course, the actual number of customers who try to start online and finish in the contact center is probably higher and at least some percentage of customers who prefer to start online fall out to customer care for one reason or another.
I tell our teams that “everything starts digitally, but always be ready in the contact center,” and that’s probably more true for energy utilities than for most industries. The pace of digital self-service transition lags in the industry, so the chance for fall-out to customer service remains high. That’s a real case for having well defined first customer journeys and a great onboarding experience for the first customer experience.
Think about it. When utilities can help set up a brand new customer for their commodity service AND register them for paperless billing AND get them signed up for one of the email newsletters from Questline that helps with ongoing communication AND send them an invite for the mobile app AND offer them a service plan AND learn that they have electric vehicle AND point them to the marketplace for an EV charger offer AND sign them up for a time of use rate or help an eligible customer for a payment assistance program AND send them a digital welcome package by email that includes a Voice of the Customer survey, the customer feels well prepared for success with the utility. That’s either a very long call or a detailed digital experience to navigate. Some utilities can handle the entire experience themselves. For those that can’t, luckily there’s a lot of new technology to make sure that they digital experience and the customer service experience reflect the same high-quality onboarding experience the utility wants to deliver to set the customer up for a successful high value relationship.
MC: How can utilities establish safe innovation labs to leverage AI in tuning the customer experience? Additionally, how do you see customer service, marketplaces, and digital outreach supporting utility efforts to modernize and explore emerging technologies within a safe harbor?
MW: AI comes up a lot lately with utilities from AI in the CX to AI making choices for customers in marketplaces to how to leverage AI in customer service. We’ve found that definitions for AI change depending on who we talk to and the applications being discussed, so we had to find a way to simplify the framework.
In terms of marketplaces, I’m impressed with how utilities have thrown caution to the wind on AI and expecting AI to make decisions and recommend products and services and tailor experiences. It’s the one area where utilities are actually ahead of other industries about how to apply. The value of AI in ecommerce, the backbone of a digital marketplace, relates to matching complex product catalogs and customer purchase preferences. Big retailers see promise with AI, but we see limited application for utility marketplaces. To be successful, AI would have to train on a lot of customer data to synthesize through complex catalogs to make product recommendations. Utility marketplace catalogs tend to be smaller and more focused already, and most utilities may be uncomfortable training an AI with customer data for transactional recommendations. Utility marketplaces can improve performance without AI, but with better tuned and expanded catalogs that have been proven to appeal to more segments of customers from the utility including things like service plans and new devices like EV chargers.
In customer service, some industries are experimenting with AI in customer facing applications like chatbots to answer questions from a website and divert a call, but we’re seeing a lot of data that customers aren’t loving those experiences. I don’t see a customer facing chatbot for utilities as a safe way to experiment with AI. I’d much rather train an AI chatbot with utility policies and procedures and website content and let agents use it to answer customer questions instead of using their outdated knowledge base tools. Chatbots give more consistent answers faster and more consistently to improve first call resolutions and lower handle times. Plus, utilities would have the safety and control of trained agents mediating the conversation with customers as an added security measure.
For customer engagement, I LOVE using AI in customer outreach. I’ve been using ChatGPT to help with content creation. A bit of training with prompts for a good writer can dramatically increase the quality and velocity of content for utilities to use in their customer outreach programs. A writer can take an article on energy efficiency, for example, and with a few prompts, ask ChatGPT to personalize it for residential, small business, and C&I customers to make it more relevant for those audiences. Little things like that help teams use AI to get more and better customer engagement safely and affordably.
MC: When implementing AI and other emerging technologies in the utility sector, how can organizations strike a balance between fostering innovation and ensuring compliance with regulations, and what role do safe innovation labs play in this delicate balance?
MW: Tough question that’s probably the topic for a book over an interview, and maybe a great discussion thread in the Digital Utility community.
I’d want my compliance team to be aware of any AI projects in my organization, and utilities probably need to provide guidance on the use of AI and tools like ChatGPT in the organization. It’s probably not appropriate or even useful to totally ban the technology especially if you have people working from home and can’t monitor all out of network activity, so better to have a compliance policy related to the technology and tools.
It’s still very early for regulators to have encountered AI or formed policies, but I think it’s safe to be cautious. In this case, our industry’s low risk tolerance pays advantages. Compliance teams may want to create some guidelines about how AI can be trained with utility and customer data or work with associations to begin shaping the policies that will inevitably develop.
When in doubt, transparency is key. Perhaps it’s a matter of creating a pilot with full transparency and in cooperation with the regulator to demonstrate the potential of the technology. I could see the value of AI trained on past energy use data making EE tip recommendations to customers, or self-service chatbots trained with thousands of transcripts of actual customer calls that had positive outcomes being deployed to live customer interactions. Utilities could cooperate with regulators and partner with vendors to develop technology in safe harbors where the customer data could train the AI and results carefully monitored for efficacy and security. Such applications preserve the public trust and promote customer benefits, as well.
We know that the technology will evolve quickly with or without the participation of utilities, so customers benefit if utilities find a safe, affordable, and controllable way to at least experiment with the technology.
MC: Mark, CS Week isn’t that far away, so I do want to get your thoughts leading up to the conference. What are the hot trends you’re hoping to see and what new type of insights are you hoping to take away at this gathering of customer service professionals?
MW: I’m always excited to get to see partners and friends in the industry again. Not sure where our booth will be this year, but very much looking forward to getting to Ft. Worth.
AI will surely be a topic, and I’m interested to see where it’s being applied most creatively. AI can be a powerful tool to spot patterns where we otherwise miss them, so it has enormous potential deep in the infrastructure of the energy industry.
Where I’m more involved in the customer experience aspects of the industry, I’m interested to learn where AI can improve processes and smooth out the rough edges of the customer experience.
Self-Service has been such a big topic from CIS to billing and payments to customer portals and mobile apps. I’m interested to see all of the latest tech for helping customers help themselves. Harris had so many cool demonstrations last year that I’m eager to see how they top themselves.
I saw a lot of sessions on the agenda about making things easier and more personalized for the customer, so I’m thinking this could be the year that we see more emphasis from executives on that front. It’s been a topic for a decade, but I’m really seeing traction. Questline Digital has an incredible technology that creates personalized videos for individual customers on virtually any topic. Xcel Energy has a session about their multichannel VoC program in customers’ channel of choice really amping up insights. Chris Hilborn has a session on how Liberty’s using analytics to really dig into the strategic implementation of investment in the customer experience. What were conversations 5 year ago have a lot of action with outcomes this year.
Thanks to Mark Wilkinson for joining me for this interview and for providing a wealth of insights and expertise to the Energy Central Community. You can trust that Mark will be available for you to reach out and connect, ask questions, and more as an Energy Central member, so be sure to make him feel welcome when you see her across the platform.